The Litvinenko Inquiry – Reading the signals

Days 18 to 29 (end of public hearings) – up to March 30th

All good spy dramas end with an intriguing cliffhanger. In this regard, the open session of the Litvinenko Inquiry has not disappointed.

Late in proceedings the Chairman received notice supposedly from Dmitri Kovtun (one of the two alleged assassins) asking to present evidence to the Inquiry. The Chairman has provided a list of ground-rules for Mr Kovtun (see evidence from Day 29 here, starting on page 106) prior to receiving evidence on July 27th. Understandably, given the outstanding Metropolitan Police warrant for his arrest, Mr Kovtun will be appearing via video-link.  It is unlikely he will cough to the crime, although the weight of scientific evidence against him is damning. None the less his involvement has been welcomed and rounds off the public hearings nicely. The Inquiry has now adjourned for nearly four months.

It was not the only message passed to the Chairman from Russia. On March 9th, Andrei Lugovoy, the other alleged killer, received an honour for ‘Services to the Fatherland’; an act described as a “provocation” by the counsel to the Litvinenko family. It is unlikely to be coincidence. But in my view it is little more than mischief from Putin, given how little an outcome critical of him directly or Russia more widely is likely to hurt. But it is another example of how signs and statements have had to be interpreted throughout this Inquiry.

A fascinating day’s evidence was offered by Professor Robert Service, an expert in Russian history. He described how some academics and Russia-watchers are forced to interpret what is happening in Putin’s Russia by resurrecting the lost art of ‘Kremlinology’: keeping an eye on who is photographed next to Putin; who is left in Moscow when Putin goes on holiday (i.e. trusted not to launch a coup) and so on. Not since the dark days of the Cold War, before Gorbachev opened up the Soviet Union, have such methods been necessary. The openness and public discourse of the years up to the Putin-era was smothered by a “blanket of near secrecy” after the year 2000. “This did not happen accidentally or naturally” Professor Service said.

The Litvinenko Inquiry has, at times, sounded quite other-worldly. It is not everyday one hears of a videotape allegedly held by Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, purporting to show Putin in “compromising sexual circumstances of a homosexual nature”. Likewise, British courts do not often discuss nuclear-suitcase-bombs. There was barely concealed tittering when the manager of the Best Western hotel in Shaftesbury Avenue described Lugovoy and Kovtun as looking like “a donkey with a saddle” in ill-fitting and garishly coloured suits as they checked in to rooms subsequently discovered to have high doses of polonium-210.

But, ultimately, the story the Inquiry told was one of threats, bullies, murky deals and unexplained deaths. The polonium-210 used to murder Alexander Litvinenko could only have been produced in a state facility and there are few of these around the world. Many close to power in modern Russia (which, the Inquiry heard, includes organised criminal gangs) had a motive to kill Litvinenko. And, even if he neither ordered nor tacitly condoned the act, Vladimir Putin has ushered in an era of thuggish political patronage and a centralisation of unaccountable power in Russia which allows such killings to occur.

The Inquiry Chairman intends to produce his report before Christmas. Any ripples will likely be limited to the Western media and political establishments; the impact in Russia, I believe, will be negligible although it will be worth seeing if, and how, Russian media organs such as Russia Today react. As Professor Service said: “the Kremlin is much more of a closed castle in our century than it was in the last 15 years of the previous century.”

Some linked material reproduced here is courtesy of the Litvinenko Inquiry –

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